Ruqsana Begum isn’t easily boxed. As well as being a Muay Thai kickboxing world champion, the Bethnal Green born ‘Warrior Princess’ is a sports hijab creator, trained architect, leader of a Muay Thai women’s class at KO Gym, faithful Muslim, author, Gymshark model, and occasionally trains in Las Vegas.
She is the only Muslim woman to be a national champion in her sport.
‘I’m not a rebel,’ Ruqsana Begum says over coffee, ‘people have this idea of boxers – it’s a brutal sport – and people think that extends to the person. They expect me to be aggressive’. Begum isn’t what you might expect when you think of a kickboxer, or even a female boxer.
Our brains, flawed and stereotypical as they are, don’t allow you to envision the sweet countenance and shy, petite form of Ruqsana Begum when you think of someone who’ll knock you out clean on the canvas.
Only, maybe they should. Begum is completely different outside the ring, meaning that she surprises people, including her own family, when they find out about her professional career.
Coach of a women’s kickboxing group at Globe Town’s KO Gym in her spare time, she talks about diversity, the place where faith and fitness meet, knocking down stereotypes, the sports hijab, and how she ‘came out’ as a kickboxer to her family.
A five year secret
Unlike many, Ruqsana Begum’s ‘coming out’ identity story had little to do with her sexuality. Instead, she was revealing to her family that she was professionally boxing. While they were aware that she attended the gym frequently, Begum hid her love and talent for kickboxing for five years.
‘I was scared that they wouldn’t approve. It’s a very male-dominated brutal sport. I mean, 15 years ago, sports for women, not to mention muslim women, just weren’t normalised.’ Even today, women’s sports are less televised and struggle with exposure, meaning many athletes are still fighting for equal pay.
It’s harder still for the ‘unfeminine’ sports like boxing to get centre-stage. Women’s boxing was only introduced at the Olympics in 2012, relatively late. ’15 years ago what I’m doing was unheard of, and on top of that I’m Muslim, Asian, and petite – it was a lot stacked against me when I was younger.’
Originally on a trajectory towards architecture, after graduating in the subject from Westminster University in 2006, Ruqsana attended the Muay Thai kickboxing classes as a secret hobby. It wasn’t until she was 24, after she escaped her struggling arranged marriage, that she was able to reclaim some of her identity and reveal her sport of choice to her parents.
‘My parents were driving through East London and I told them to take me to the gym. They didn’t know where they were going or what was going on. I brought them in and introduced them to my coach, Bill Judd. He sat them down and talked to them for over an hour.’
Her former coach Bill Judd, who founded KO Gym, was a Muay Thai world champion, and was always supportive about Begum’s faith and struggles.
‘He reassured them that I’m in a safe place, I’m one of the “good ones.” I’m not interested in anything else – he even said, “she’s not interested in make-up, she just works out”’ Begum laughs remembering.
‘He showed them it was a really nice environment for people who just love sport. It was about being a better human being and finding an outlet in my life.’
Boxing became a sort of rehab for Begum, she went back to the gym to recollect herself and she thinks her parents saw that, ‘My parents took a step back and let me recover. They felt quite guilty about my marriage and I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve always been a good daughter. It didn’t work out and in the process I got really ill and suffered from panic attacks.’
While they don’t love what she does now, they do support her, and watched her in her debut on Channel 5 after she signed with David Haye’s Hayemaker productions.
Her father is proud of her titles, she has her mother’s prayers and her siblings – three brothers and one sister – have never had an issue with it. ‘My brothers just let me get on with it, but my sister is very supportive. We’re complete opposites but we get on really well. She understands everything I’ve been through.’
Begum came to realise that kickboxing didn’t go against her beliefs at all. ‘It was a very personal journey for me. I managed to balance my religion and be a modern, ambitious, independent, forward-thinking female.’
‘My family realised I’m still the same person, I still have my values. They know my limits and they know I’ve kept my family roots.’
Sports Hijab Creator
Being an inspiring example isn’t all Begum is doing to try and help other muslim women into sport. Before she was sponsored by Gymshark, she designed a sports hijab, noticing a gap in the market.
‘I wanted muslim women to participate without feeling that they were sacrificing their values and beliefs. I wanted to show how sport and fitness can meet faith.’
The sports hijab has become more popular in the last few years and well-known sports brands like Nike have released their own lines. While Begum didn’t invent the sports hijab, she was definitely one of the first to bring it to the UK.
Describing this inspiring act as a passion project, Begum wanted young girls to have access to the clothing for P.E, so that she could take away just one barrier for them.
‘Muslim women participation in sport is around 4%. That’s horrible to me, and yet I know the struggle. When I started there weren’t any muslim women instructors, or many women at all.’
Contrary to the revolutionary feel the press give the sports hijab in the UK, it’s actually been available in other countries for years, and already existed in Turkey and Morocco. ‘When I went to the world championships in 2009, I was amazed at how many female athletes there were from muslim countries, while GB only had four women.’
‘We often think of muslim countries as backwards, but they’re actually progressive. They are forward in terms of sport, they already had muslim women in focus, and in sports hijabs.’
KO Gym women’s Muay Thai kickboxing class
Begum runs a women’s kickboxing class at KO Gym. The Sunday 12:30pm session has women from all backgrounds and walks of life. Journalists, doctors, housewives, and mothers are just some of the women who attend. ‘It’s people and parts of the area that would never really mix together.’
Begum is proud of the class. ‘I see the difference that I make, it’s not just a fitness class to them, it’s about cohesion and community. It’s about confidence building, friends, uniting people and breaking down all these barriers and insecurities.’
Begum considers it helpful to the group that she’s from an ethnic minority, ‘I like to give hope. Things like my little niece, who looks at me and thinks, “Oh, nothing is impossible now”, drive me to get back in the ring.’
While she has recently gone back to KO, her former Muay Thai boxing gym, to train with Bill Judd, she also trains before big fights in Las Vegas camps with Ismael Salas.
Ruqsana has GB and EU titles from her 12 year long kickboxing career, and explains that the transition to women’s boxing is something that many people underestimate the difficulty of.
While she has the mentality and discipline required to train and get in the ring, the technical skills – the footwork, accuracy and technique – were completely new to her this past year.
Constantly moving forward, Begum changed her focus to straight boxing over a year ago to reach new goals. ‘Rather than be at the top of one mountain, I wanted to start from the bottom again and follow what inspires me’.
The place where faith and fitness meet
Begum stresses that sport has taught her much about life. ‘When things get tough, you have to pick yourself back up. If strategy A fails, go to strategy B. You have to adapt, as a woman in boxing too, you don’t rely on your strength as much, it’s more tactics and strategy.’
While she believes that everyone should do some kind of sport to reap the benefits of being physically and mentally healthy, she considers boxing specifically to be a very powerful outlet. It is a method she has used to cope with the pressures of life, to discipline herself and improve as a person.
Her advice to all young women, particularly muslim girls, for telling your parents you want a career in sport is: ‘Have those conversations with your parents and find out their concerns. Find balance and compromise.
‘For me, it was about training once a week and making sure my parents were happy with me. I’d wake up early and help my mum in the kitchen, do housework, and be a good daughter.
‘I didn’t want to go out with my friends like other teenagers. I lived for the sport. I had to compromise with my parents, even though they didn’t know the truth about why I was going to the gym.’
An unstoppable force, Begum found time in her busy training schedule to write a sports biography that will be launched next year. Capturing her personal experiences in a book will help further inspire young people to follow their passions regardless of restricting stereotypes.
If you want another inspiring read, you might like our Talking to local women Q&A, or if you want to see more about boxing, you might enjoy our York Hall boxing photo essay Blood, Sweat and Solidarity.
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